Forecasting that peak demand on the UK capital's commuter railways is set to grow by 30% over the next 20 years, Transport for London's Managing Director, London Rail, Ian Brown explained to Robert Preston how a package of major projects, upgrades and smaller schemes should deliver the extra capacity

'WE'VE BEEN testing scenarios to increase the capacity of the rail network by 40% by 2015', says Ian Brown, who expects to begin engagement with stakeholders on TfL's Rail Vision for London this month.

Although franchises to operate commuter services into London are now the responsibility of the Department for Transport, and the infrastructure is owned by Network Rail, as the Mayor of London's transport agency TfL must by law be consulted when invitations to tender for a franchise are issued.

'Our role is to plan for London', says Brown, whose organisation is also engaged 'with a vengeance' in the development of Route Utilisation Strategies for the London commuter network. TfL London Rail aims to provide informed input to Network Rail which has taken over responsibility for the RUS programme from the now-defunct Strategic Rail Authority.

Crossrail Line 1, running under the centre of London from Abbey Wood and Shenfield in the east to Heathrow Airport and Maidenhead in the west, is 'rightly placed' at the top of TfL's rail priorities. But funding a project that includes 46 km of tunnels as deep as 50m below street level is clearly beyond TfL's own resources. Transport Secretary Alistair Darling told the House of Commons earlier this year that the projected cash cost including inflation is some £15bn to £16bn, assuming that construction is undertaken between 2008 and 2015.

'With these sorts of numbers the government is wanting to be in the driving seat', says Brown, who expects consultation on funding mechanisms to begin in 2006. This may depend on a wider inquiry into reforming local government finance, but Brown is upbeat. 'We can see progress on Crossrail', he says, noting that the government is giving positive indications as to the continuation of funding for Cross London Rail Links which is responsible for developing the project.

In TfL's work to identify which schemes would best deliver its capacity aspirations, the case for upgrading the existing Thameslink route across the capital 'comes out very strong'. But in contrast to the much-delayed Thameslink 2000 scheme which aims to create a regional network stretching from King's Lynn in the north to Brighton in the south, TfL sees the need for a simpler, metro-style operation 'to serve key London markets'. In particular, Brown does not think that the branch to Moorgate on the northern edge of the City should be closed as 'we need it'.

'We've got to be a bit less wooden on Thameslink', says Brown, suggesting that a staged programme of works might be better suited to meeting future demand than the 'all or nothing' approach of Thameslink 2000. He notes that traffic on the existing Thameslink route to Bedford and on Great Northern commuter services that would also use the upgraded link is 'growing like mad'.

In the meantime, there is the thorny issue of the new Thameslink station box at St Pancras, built as part of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link project but not as yet fitted out for passenger use owing to a lack of government funding. Brown himself prepared the business case for TfL's formal proposal to lend £60m for the work, on the condition that risk would be capped. He is clear that a fully-accessible interchange between CTRL and Thameslink must be provided, especially as London will be hosting the Paralympic Games in 2012.

Easing the bottlenecks

TfL London Rail has also identified 30 smaller projects to address specific capacity constraints on the network. There would be a limited amount of work in central London, but some schemes would tackle platform and throat restrictions at several termini, including Waterloo where Brown sees using the existing International station for domestic traffic once CTRL Section 2 is completed as 'key to providing capacity'.

Constraints such as Borough Market Junction near London Bridge, Herne Hill and Windmill Bridge north of Croydon would need to be investigated. On orbital routes such as the West and North London lines potential for growth is limited by speed restrictions, signalling headways and the traffic mix.

Precisely how any infrastructure projects would be funded has yet to be determined, but further borrowing by TfL could be one option. TfL London Rail has been allocated £1·5bn of the £2·9bn to be raised by TfL under its current five-year investment programme, but this has been mostly allocated to the East London Line project (RG 7.05 p392) and further extensions of the Docklands Light Railway.

Alongside infrastructure works, TfL London Rail believes that commuter rail capacity could be increased by simplifying timetables, segregating inner-suburban services from outer-London and inter-city services and operating longer trains.

On the inner-suburban network, Brown's aim is to provide a metro-style service of four trains/h 'to any station of any consequence', but he notes that there is 'a fair bit of work to get to it'. By January 2007 it is hoped to replace the current range of point-to-point fares charged by Train Operating Companies within the Greater London area with a zonal fares structure aligned with that applying on London Underground. TfL is also seeking to have its Oyster smartcard and Pre Pay stored-value facility accepted by all TOCs. 'The passengers want to see this', says Brown.

But he admits that some slippage in meeting the January 2007 target may be inevitable. Although the move to zonal fares should be revenue-neutral and 'the London TOCs are all co-operating with us', according to Brown, they still maintain that 'revenue risk is where we make money'. With little freedom to alter fixed costs such as track access charges and rolling stock leasing, TOCs have been keen to retain their freedom to set fares and retain any profits.

Silverlink blazes a trail

Fares integration is key to TfL's plans for the Silverlink Metro service group, comprising 750V DC services on the London Euston - Watford Junction route, the orbital North London Line from Richmond to North Woolwich and the connecting Willesden Junction - Clapham Junction service, worked by dual-system EMUs, as well as the diesel-worked Gospel Oak - Barking route. The current Silverlink franchise expires in October 2006, and Brown reports that work to disaggregate Metro from the longer-distance Silverlink County operations is 'largely complete'.

TfLis expecting to take charge of the Silverlink Metro franchise, which Brown sees as 'quite a significant step'. Once the transfer is complete there will be 'only Merseytravel and us running National Rail franchises', he notes. And when other franchises are re-let, he expects TfL to bring its influence to bear 'provided the London client has his money where his mouth is and is informed'.

While TfL sees the Watford Junction line as ultimately forming an extension of LU's Bakerloo Line, which ran to Watford until 1982 and currently uses the route as far as Harrow & Wealdstone, Brown says the potential of the North London Line to relieve congestion elsewhere on the LU network is 'quite large'. Leaving the service in its present condition 'doesn't do anything', as the three-car trains currently operating on the route 'are so full that you can't get on them'.

An upgrade of the Richmond - Stratford route costed at £90m could see platforms lengthened and signalling upgraded to permit a peak frequency of eight trains/h. An investment plan was due to have been finalised for consideration by the Transport Secretary this month, and London's successful bid to host the Olympic Games in 2012 has been 'a huge boost' for this project according to Brown. The North London Line upgrade is of 'strategic value' to the Olympic Transport Plan as it will serve the main Olympic Park site along the River Lea at Stratford.

The investment package includes a new freight loop at Stratford, and Brown stresses 'we want to see metro services but not at the cost of taking freight off'. TfL has 'talked to EWS and Freightliner at some length', and Brown acknowledges that there are potentially 'big conflicts' between more intensive passenger operations and freight on a route which links the West Coast Main Line with the booming container port of Felixstowe. He believes that gauge-enhancement on cross-country routes avoiding London helps towards the long term. 'We've really got to see a national solution', he says, noting that London's busy freight corridors linking the main lines are 'seriously vulnerable'.

These corridors include the West London Line between Clapham Junction and Willesden Junction, a key crossing of the River Thames that is particularly vital to traffic moving to and from the Channel Tunnel. New stations are to be built at Shepherd's Bush and Imperial Wharf, and 'we want four passenger trains an hour on it', says Brown, where there are currently three trains/h operated by Silverlink Metro and Southern. Freight traffic can be accommodated within this enhanced timetable, he says.

TfL has a remit to encourage the development of rail freight, and Brown is keen to see the Channel Tunnel Rail Link used by freight trains and new terminal facilities developed in east London, probably at Barking/Dagenham. 'We shall do everything in the Mayor's powers to facilitate this', says Brown.

Light rail to the rescue?

South of Stratford, the North London Line as far as Canning Town is to be converted for use by a new branch of the Docklands Light Railway to Stratford International, which Brown describes as 'quite interesting'. The remainder of the NLL between Canning Town and North Woolwich is to close, replaced by Crossrail and the DLR extension to London City Airport and ultimately Woolwich Arsenal, the first section of which is due to open in December this year.

Following the success of Croydon Tramlink in breathing new life into once-marginal heavy rail routes, TfL is considering the potential for more light rail conversion schemes, especially where they might provide a more frequent service at a lower cost than heavy rail.

Candidates for conversion might include 'any branch that goes into a town centre not very successfully', and Brown cites the branch off the Great Western Main Line to Greenford as an example. 'It's very hard to start a light rail line from scratch', he says, which makes the case stronger for conversion and extending existing light rail networks.

  • CAPTION: TfL is keen to integrate London's three rail networks more closely. Here Silverlink Metro's North London Line, LU's Jubilee Line Extension and the Docklands Light Railway run parallel on the southern approach to the interchange at Canning Town
  • CAPTION: Test trains began running on the Docklands Light Railway branch to London City Airport on August 10, with the start of gauging work ahead of the planned public opening in December
  • CAPTION: With Croydon's Tramlink network handling almost 20 million passengers a year, Ian Brown sees a role for light rail to take over more under-used suburban branches feeding into main line interchanges, as Tramlink does as East Croydon